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US Super Bowl Commercial on Tibet Sparks Controversy

A sign marks the location of the Groupon headquarters on November 30, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.
A sign marks the location of the Groupon headquarters on November 30, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.

The U.S. Internet discount company Groupon, which aired a commercial during Sunday's Super Bowl focusing on the plight of the people of Tibet, has sparked a controversy overseas and in China. Some have posted angry comments online saying the commercial went too far, while others have announced their plans to stop using the discount service.

The controversial commercial opens with a shot of a lofty snow-capped Tibetan mountain scene set to flute music. Then, U.S. Hollywood actor Timothy Hutton appears and says in a somber tone: "The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy."

But as soon as the commercial seems to be easing into a message about Tibet, Hutton then beams as he talks about a deal he got from Groupon for a fish curry dish at a Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.

Bob Thompson is the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at New York's Syracuse University. "The biggest problem is that the commercial is just not very funny. I mean, you can get away with making fun of some pretty sacred cow situations, if the result is really hysterical and it really works," he said.

Thompson says that what was odd about the commercial is that it starts out as a very typical well-meaning appeal for an important issue. "And then it of course turns it around, but it does it in a way that isn't so much funny as it makes us really uncomfortable," he said.

The 30-second spot has sparked an avalanche of angry blogs and social network messages.

Many talked about how upset they were with the commercial and Groupon's decision to run the ad. One person put a post on Twitter that called the Groupon spot outrageously insensitive and said he would not use Groupon until the ad was pulled.

On Facebook, some supporters of Tibet launched a group called "Shame On You Groupon, Double Donate." Postings on the page included videos and information from human rights groups about China's treatment of the Tibetan people.

Others said people should just lighten up, and they noted it is not the first time that the advertising company Groupon hired - Crispin Porter and Bogusky - has used controversy to boost a company's brand recognition.

Bob Thompson said "I think that is part of it. The whole idea is, if you are going to pay $3 million for 30 seconds of commercial time, you want to get all the bang for the buck that you can."

China's handling of Tibet has long been a source of domestic and international controversy for Beijing, which took control of the region in 1951.

In a blog for the International Campaign for Tibet on Monday, Bhuchung Tsering says that while the commercial wasn't "ideal" and was "tacky," the amount of attention it is bringing to the plight of the Tibetan people is something that he could live with.

In China, the Super Bowl does not usually attract a lot of attention, but Internet users were commenting on Chinese language blogs about the spot shortly after it was aired.

On's Chinese language microblogging site, some voiced their anger over how China's treatment of the people of Tibet was portrayed. Many others noted that in the wake of the advertisement, Groupon is not likely to have a chance of surviving in China's market.

Following the outpouring of criticism Monday, Groupon CEO Andrew Mason defended his company's decision to run the ad on its company blog, saying that it would have never run the ads if the company thought it trivialized issues such as Tibet.

The blog says Groupon takes the causes it highlighted in the commercial extremely seriously, and it noted that if anything, the commercial would bring more funding and support to the causes its commercials highlight.